Sunday, October 26, 2008

Horror Movie Marathon Wrap-Up, Part 1: Rosemary's Baby

A caveat before I begin: my goal with this post (and the next few posts) is not necessarily to construct a cohesive argument regarding these films. Rather, I am hoping to use this space to simply respond to them, as they might be considered both independently and (eventually and more interestingly) together. I'm not sure where this is going to go--in fact, I haven't even figured out how to start this write up yet. But I feel like I should say something, if only because I spent ten hours of my life watching these five films this past weekend.

I suppose the best way to start is to introduce the format: my wife and I host an annual Halloween movie party at our house each year. In the past, this party has consisted of three or four horror movies, watched in between any number of breaks for snacks, meals and board games. Although this has been a pretty successful program, the introduction of Facebook to our lives prompted us to do something special this year: with the benefit of semi-formal "invitations" and a month of planning, we decided to organize a bona-fide schedule for this years events, all based around a particular theme for the movies. The theme we selected was originally conceived as a joke: having recently welcomed our first child into our home, Meredith and I thought watching movies about "evil children" would be just the right kind of "twisted." We were right, but we were also shortsighted: although we had recently started a family ourselves with the birth of Evangeline, several of our friends who were in attendance at the party were still "in transit" to this goal. Over the course of the party, not one, not two, but three pregnant women made an appearance, and as each new mother and prospective father entered the room, my confidence in our movie selections (and our taste) dwindled.

The problems were apparent from the start: our first film was ROSEMARY'S BABY, and although the film itself surprised me with the quality of its performances and its production, its politics were more unsettling than I remembered. Sure, everyone remembers the general set-up of the narrative: a woman falls victim to an elaborate plot hatched by a Satanic cult to impregnate her with the spawn of the Devil; she must uncover said plot and stop said hellspawn. But the problems come in with exactly how the film chooses to portray the heroine: Rosemary Woodhouse is not just a woman, she is an impossibly young and naive housewife to a small-fish/big-pond stage actor. She is never confident, never capable, and never particularly intelligent. Her childlike status is a sticking point for the director during the film's first half, as she frequently appears in oversized clothing, her hair in pigtails, her chin down on her chest and her large eyes looking up as if she had done something to get in trouble. She is a waif, and she is will-less. This makes her relationship to her husband, "Guy," all the more unsettling: Guy, who embodies approximately 47 of the 48 most common Italian stereotypes found in Hollywood cinema, is also loud-mouthed, self-centered and condescending (no, those are not Italian stereotypes). His idea of a romantic evening: she cooks, and then, mid-dinner, he takes his pants off (without a word) for sex. For her part, Rosemary is upsettingly compliant when things like this happen: when Guy begins to undo his jeans, she puts down her fork--also without speaking--and pulls her dress over her head. The resulting sex scene is filmed by a static camera and is one of the least erotic consensual sex scenes I can think of.

Of course, that's part of the issue: although Rosemary goes along with Guy's "request" without complaining, her lack of any agency up this point in the film prevents her from being able to offer any real "consent" to the encounter. This is the problem with her marriage to Guy: she is less than a child to him (or to us); she is an ornament, or a piece of furniture, to which Guy (and the movie) can do as they please. The fact, then, that Guy sells their unborn son to the Satanic cult next door in exchange for a part in an off-Broadway play is not a tremendous moral decision for him: as his wife, Rosemary's job is to produce babies, and since she is young, fertile and compliant (she mentions twice to random strangers how easy it will be for her to have a baby, even before she assumes, after a single sexual encounter, that she "MUST be pregnant!"), Guy assumes there won't be any problem having more children after the one he gives away is gone. The logic mirrors a kindergartener's response to the story of Rumpelstiltskin: losing your "first born son" (especially on the day of his birth!) is only traumatic if you don't have any more kids; therefore, just as the heroine of that story is able to make gold from hay (read: nothing), so the mother IS ALSO CAPABLE of making a potentially infinite number of children and, logically speaking, negate the terror of the crazy dwarf's threat of stealing (only!) one of them. In other words: what's the big deal? There's always more where that came from.

But this is where ROSEMARY'S BABY gets interesting: for Rosemary, the narrative purpose for being put in this predicament--her "job," so to speak, as a character--is not to solve the plot, but to successfully terminate it. Since she has already been raped and impregnated by the time she "awakens" in the movie from her passivity and blind obedience, the only "active" thing for her to do is to find a way (and the willpower) to terminate her pregnancy before she gives birth. However, there is, of course, a double-bind: as a "real mother," she is wholly and completely attached to the life of her child, even to the point where she puts her own life in danger to preserve it. The movie presents this as a completely natural response: this is what mothers "do." I can go with that. However, she is also bound by an intricate system of specifically male acquaintances who are responsible for controlling her actions, such that even when she begins to suspect Guy, she is still bound by a network of other men. At no point is this more apparent than in her frantic visit to Dr. Hill, a physician recommended to her by her girlfriends, who listens patiently to Rosemary's explanation of the plot against her ("and her baby"), only to tuck her in for a nap and then call all the people she just told him were evil so they can come pick her up. The problem isn't just the chauvinistic Guy; it's a patriarchal conspiracy, headed up (ultimately) by the Devil himself.

After Dr. Hill's betrayal, it is a narrative formality for her to give birth to her son and to have him taken by the cult that has control over her. It is also an efficient way to move through the threat that abortion poses to the sanctity of the narrative itself: by stripping Rosemary of agency (and even knowledge) regarding the devil-baby in her belly, the movie makes sure we know the social/political stakes of her quest to uncover the "truth" about the conspiracy that surrounds her: she is a girl playing detective and nothing more; in the end, what she finds is only relevant if it can persuade a presumably neutral man to call a hospital instead of her husband.

So what, then, is Rosemary "good" for, and why does a patriarchal order topped by Satan carry the day here? Well, the film's answer to the second question is most obvious, so we'll begin there: Satan is at the end and beginning of all plots here because "God Is Dead"--so saith a copy of TIME magazine Rosemary picks up at the doctor's office; so saith the high priest of her friendly neighborhood Satanic cult at the very end of the film. In fact, so saith the film itself, at least in terms of the faith it bothers to reward: the closest we come to a "Christian" presence is probably a tie between the Woodhouse's old friend Hutch and a young woman Rosemary meets in the laundry room of her hotel, and both of those characters end up dead, in both cases by suicide, and in both cases, through the direct interference of members of the Satanic cult that takes Rosemary's baby. But the pronouncement is also a strange one in itself, and it never receives sufficient explanation: if God is Dead, who killed Him and why? The movie dangles a few of the usual suspects before us--consumerism, materialism, greed, power, etc.--but nothing ever rises to the surface with any authority other than good old fashion Procreation: the Devil needs a son, and there ain't no she-devils in Hell. So, I suppose we might say it was Man who killed God, but only in that both God and the Devil need heirs to keep their kingdoms going, and (apparently) the only way to get them is to seduce literal or figurative twelve-year-olds.

But, to close this thing out, let's give brief attention to the former question from a moment ago: what is Rosemary "good" for? The deeply upsetting answer the movie gives is that Rosemary's purpose is, quite simply, to take care of her baby. In the movie's closing scene, Rosemary confronts the cult that has tormented her and demands to see her baby. When she gets what she asks for, her initial response is to recoil in horror: the child is a monster, too horrific for the camera to see, conceivable only through a flashback to Rosemary's rape and a shot of the eyes of the baby's father. However, after a few minutes of closing exposition, Rosemary asks the cult leader an interesting question: what can I do? Of course, the movie has prepped us for a particular response: you can kill it! You can take the crucifix hanging over its crib and stab it into the little bastard's heart! You can WIN! YOU CAN ACT!

But the cultist has a different response: "You can be its mother, Rosemary. After all, that's what you are." Rosemary's role, even unto the anti-Christ, is to hold, feed and nurture a baby, not because the movie is certain that "mothers mothering" is an important message to send but because there is simply no other message women like Rosemary--which is to say, all women--are capable of hearing. Thus, Rosemary is not--and perhaps was never--a moral agent; in fact, her disaster was set in motion before she spoke an independent line by the one who spoke and continues to speak for her--her husband, Guy. Of course, this is slimy to us, the viewers, but that's only because we've forgotten the rational way out of the old paradox with first-born sons: children are a dime a dozen, but a part off-Broadway? That's the Devil's bargain.

Time Take Two

Let me begin my response to Bob Dylan’s 1997 album, Time Out of Mind, by saying I have only listened to this album once through already, though I have attempted to do more than three times. So, my inability to sustain a complete session of listening is not because I haven’t tried, nor do I think it’s a fault of the album. In fact, it’s one thing I quite enjoy about Time Out of Mind: I can actively listen, or I can drift in and out. And it’s this quality of, for lack of a better term, in-between-ness that is the album’s strength.

What make that possible are a couple of things, but probably most specifically the length of the songs. All are long, and all are rambly and feature what you’d think of as a traditional arrangement of instruments for a Dylan album. (He has the ever-deft drummer Brian Blade of a few tracks too, which is a treat.) Each of these songs, whether use an electric guitar jump or the warm wash of an organ, also exploit and push Dylan’s voice to its expressive limits. It sounds like scraps of cloth stuck on barbed wire burr: prickly and warm, but authentic and present.

In this album we do get the quintessential Dylan silliness, the pinnacle being a discussion between the speaker and a woman over boiled eggs. And there is the simple “To Make You Feel My Love,” made famous by scads of popsters, (including the frightening Timothy B. Schmidt). Dylan’s treatment of the song is straight-ahead and plain, making the symmetry of its words something like a beautifully made finial, well turned and some how ordinary. But in most of the other songs, Dylan pulls from a repository of American blues archetypes and uses those templates to name-check so many places it’s hard to keep them straight. The “gay Paree” has been mentioned, but there’s Missouri and Baltimore, Dixie and the middle of nowhere, “inside a doorway” and heaven. He employs various chronic qualifiers—when, if, and yet.

The effect of these lyrics and the quality of his voice then reflects a sense of hauntedness instead of the punchy irony and biting sarcasm of the mid-sixties albums. What we get is a speaker caught somewhere between—he’s in a doorway, he’s “twenty miles outside of town,” some purgatorial waiting room, and waiting for dark to fall. This liminality is different from his position on an album like JWH. Though I think in the other kinds of albums Dylan can put on this bardic tone, being a seer and a doer and remaining Bob Dylan, here what we associate with the singer/artist icon persona gives way to a broader kind of figure—a bluesman, maybe or some kind of American version of a crusader. He’s on a path, always going somewhere, but not getting there yet. He has destinations and aspirations including winning back love, “going to the ends of the earth” for someone or “going down the road feeling bad” (a brilliant morsel that has to come from his relationship with the Dead) on his way to heaven. This album, then, tells the story of those acts not yet completed, those homes not yet found.

It is the perfect album to listen to when you’re halfway in the bag too, but it’s also the perfect album to listen to when the sky is gray and the air is fogged with drizzle, when it’s impossible to tell where one thing ends and the next begins, when the lines are blurred and you don’t know what will happen next.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Time Out of Mind

Four important things: every song on Time Out of Mind is written in the first person; the album is nearly 80 minutes long; the lyrics are obsessed with mortality, including two references to "flesh" and "eyes" melting off of the speaker's face; and finally, the album won a grammy for Album of the Year in 1997, signaling a critical and commercial comeback for Dylan.

Musically, the songs alternate between ballads and blues, literally from track to track. The opener, "Sick of Love," begins with the clatter of just played instruments humming before the organ pounds out the staccatoed opening chord. The entire album exudes a similar informal warmth, an indeterminate number of musicians gathered in a smoky room in a circle around their ringleader Dylan. The music is atmospheric, which is both good and bad. It is capably if restrainfully played but definitely subordinate to the songs' multiple verses, which is pleasant, if a bit wearisome because of the album's uniformity in structure and theme. The shuffle "Dirt Road Blues" is as close to an upbeat number as Dylan gets. There is certainly no four to the floor rock here or even something that picks up as much steam as "Maggie's Farm." Every song takes its time to develop; four guitars, two keyboards, and sometimes two drummers ("Can't Wait") pile on top of one another, but never in a distracting way. When Dylan bows out for an instrumental break on "Dirt Road Blues," for instance, there are enough distinct guitars playing that the song could conceivably break out into a Dixieland Hot Five imitation, the proverbial clarinets, trumpets, and trombones competing on top of each other with their own lead line. But here the guitars retain their holding pattern, and except for an occasional fill flourish, the precedent holds for the entire album.

The lack of an explosive-releasing solo compliments the lyrics about emotional sterility. The songs are all about love and how the speaker isn't getting any of it. This bothers him, because as his voice, music, and words indicate, time is running out. As the album's middle song puts it, "It's not dark yet, but it's getting there." The album's final cut, a 47 hour behemoth, is named "Highlands", the place where the speaker's soul will be when he gets called home (companion piece to BoB's "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands"?). The song contains the album's most playful lyrics (if you don't include Dylan's hilarious, grizzled reading of the line "And I've been to gay Paree"), with tangents about listening to Neil Young and reading Erica Jong. The song is a microcosm of the album, pleasant if a bit tiring around hour 15.

I had never heard this album until Sunday, and I've listened to it four times over the past couple of days. The individual songs I gravitate to are "Standing in the Doorway" and "Can't Wait," the former for its chord structure and the latter for its shuffling drums and minor key groove. The lyrics are all of a piece for me, and no song stands out as more exemplary than any other. I don't know if I'll listen to it any time soon. It's a mood album, best listened to 1) while alone by someone with a belly full of wine and ears full of a lover's rejecting words OR 2) as long playing background music at a dinner party.

Monday, October 20, 2008

John Wesley Harding

John Wesley Harding, Bob Dylan’s 1968 album, lands at number 301 on Rolling Stone’s list of 500 Greatest Albums. Upon its release, it was both critically and commercially well received, but, now, I contend, the album less familiar today, save for “All Along the Watchtower,” which may be more familiar because of the scores of covers it’s spawned. I originally purchased the album because I had to exchange a duplicate gift. Admittedly, its construction, its acclaim, and its subject matter didn’t draw me in: it was the cheapest Dylan album at the megastore and I recognized “Watchtower.”

After listening through it, JWH became a fast favorite, mostly because it was unlike the other Dylan albums I was familiar with—Blonde on Blonde and The Freeewheelin’ Bob Dylan. Here, the songs are comparatively spare and straightforward. Two musicians accompany on bass and drums (the last two tracks do feature a steel guitar as well) and the rest is all Dylan—piano, guitar, and harmonica. The surrealistic, often silly, often associative, multivalenced story-lyrics are absent, except in the liner notes—a nonsensical narrative about the central song on the album. What surprised me initially is that this album could be so cohesive without being so grand and strange and epic and metaphorical in Dylan’s typical fashion. Another surprise, too, was the album’s last track “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight.” Its slow-drag tempo and the steel guitar that glints like the back of a polished spoon—easy, familiar, warm—anticipates the Nashville Skyline connections, and the subject—a stopped-time chronicle of momentary surrender--seemed somehow utterly sexy to me.

The album isn’t a complete departure for Dylan either, and perhaps the recontextualization of the familiar make this album listenable and so solid. It’s peopled with the same sort of characters that crowd his other songs, a pastiche of the actual historical (John Wesley Hardin, Tom Paine, St. Augustine) and the archetypal (a damsel in chains, gamblers, drifters, and immigrants) who interact with the speaker and the balladeer. The specific personages he mentions on this album are all from the past, and most of them American.

In some ways, then, Dylan sets up this conscious connection with the history that leads to this album. Dylan tells their stories from the third person perspective, but he also does so in the first person, fusing the narrative and lyric voices in a bardic mode and telling another version of history. Perhaps I stretch this assessment too far, but in any case, the adoption of these points of view then allow Dylan to become the seer of history as well as a participant in it. He stands outside of it to offer commentary or to adopt a quasi-Biblical prophetic tone. And, of course, this dual vision allows him to indulge yet again in putting on the guise of the outlaws and scallywags he sings about without facing any of their consequences. That works through most of the tracks: he ends them with a summation of what one should or shouldn’t do: “follow no man’s code” or “so when you see your neighbor carryin’ somethin’/help him with his load.” “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine,” however, breaks this pattern.

The speaker dreams of seeing the saint ‘alive as you or me” entering a slave market, searching for souls and appealing to “ gifted kings and queens,” but no one answers. The vision ends with the speaker taking on the role of the Vandals who put the historical Augustine to death (however tangentially that invasion was connected). He wakes “alone and terrified” and his only reaction is to go to a window “put [his] fingers to the glass/and bow [his] head and [cry].” The reality beyond the dream, the boundaries of time, the continually present past, and the dream itself collide in this song. Dylan, the speaker, is haunted by what has come before, and here cannot shake off that these visions of the past, however they are conjured, assembled and told. These tellings and retellings, the singer’s ability to put on the past and blithely doff it do purchase different things, and in this case, the line between the singers ability and the actual lived reality are as thin and transparent as the glass that separates the dreamer from the outside world. But, the glass is a barrier nonetheless. He isn’t the persecutors nor is he the saint. But, he somehow, through this voice, is implicated in Augustine’s death and pointedly feels those effects because of his role in the dream. Like Augustine’s “fiery breath,” the retelling of the past, the revisiting of the familiar from whatever perspectives we choose to inhabit is quickening, dangerous, re-creative.